Anyone who pays attention to such things knows that, in the early 1990s, the Batman comic-book series featured a storyline with a super-villain -- actually, steroid-enhanced -- named Bane, who broke Batman's back, turning him into a paraplegic (until he was eventually healed by paranormal means).
None of which will mean anything to the target audience of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, an audience too young to have been born, let alone old enough to read (or willing to read, for that matter), when the Bane storyline first surfaced in print. They want it now -- hold the history or context -- with a side of Imax, and snap it up.
And so we get The Dark Knight Rises, the third Batman film in Nolan's trilogy and also the weakest. Where Batman Begins (2005) had a mythic feel that remade the origin story in an exciting new way (away from the flat-footed cartoonishness of the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher entries), The Dark Knight felt like an overreach -- an attempt to tell too many stories in one long movie. But it won over the critics, mostly because of a sizzling performance by Heath Ledger, who died before the movie was released (and who was given a posthumous Oscar).
Now comes The Dark Knight Rises, bringing in the Bane character (played, with my condolences, by Tom Hardy) and Catwoman (Anne Hathaway, one of the movie's few highlights). Nolan gets so caught up in creating an epic adventure that he hammers the "epic" and neglects a crucial component: the adventure.
Which has been my criticism of so many of the comic-book movies of the past decade: too little attention paid to that most necessary of elements -- excitement. There is very little about The Dark Knight Rises that will make you tense, hold you in suspense or cause your adrenaline to squirt. At times, the action is so massive and thunderously clunky that I might as well have been watching one of the Transformers movies.
That's unfortunate because, somewhere within the mashed-potato mounds of Nolan's 2:40 behemoth exists a lean, compelling and distinctly dramatic tale of redemption and sacrifice, told in the kind of personal terms that Nolan made work for him in such films as Memento, Inception (despite its size) and Batman Begins. I'm not trashing the entirety of The Dark Knight Rises -- I'm saying that its potential is such that it ultimately disappoints, thanks to Nolan's decision to go big, bigger, biggest.
Part of the problem is the storytelling in the script by Nolan, his brother Jonathan and David Goyer. As in The Dark Knight, that urge to operate on a grand scale results only in a grandiosity that, ultimately, becomes a bit silly, even nonsensical.
Because, as in the previous Dark Knight, you have to buy the notion that the world is full of super-villains whose goal is to destroy for the sake of destroying, under the cover of a half-baked raison d'etre having to do with wiping the slate clean and starting over. That was the story with Ra's al Ghul (Liam Neeson) in the first Nolan film, but it was brief enough (that film being an origin tale, with less of the story actually devoted to plot, as it were) to be ignored. When it came to the Joker in The Dark Knight, well, the guy was crazy (though the whole sequence with the two boats full of people with triggers to blow each other up was a seriously confused time-waster).
It's even worse in The Dark Knight Rises, because Bane, the central villain, announces that, as a disciple of Ra's al Ghul (Liam Neeson actually pops up at one point), he's come to Gotham City to finish what Ra's and the Legion of Shadows had started: to blow it up with a nuclear device. Period. Then he takes over the city for what seems like tension-draining months.
Oh, there's more but it's the usual yin-yang good/evil gobbledy-gook: about the police being the criminals and the criminals being the only ones who understand the truth about life - the whole Bob Dylan "to live outside the law, you must be honest" riff, taken no further than that. The Gotham City cops, of course, have already been playing that game, chasing Batman as though he were Public Enemy No. 1 when he finally makes an appearance in this film.
The story in a nutshell: It's eight years after the events of The Dark Knight. Batman hasn't been seen in that time; Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is a recluse, still nursing a bum leg from his last adventures. Enter Bane to destroy Gotham - and up pops Batman to fight him.
Wayne/Batman is also fighting/flirting with a talented jewel thief, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), who disguises herself in a catsuit to perform her acts of cat burglary. She's got her own agenda, the only part of the script that actually seems to make dramatic sense. It also makes sense when she teams up with Batman to take on Bane.
But the film's conclusion - a battle between Bane's army of criminals and the mass of Gotham's police officers on the streets of Gotham - should inspire laughter, not awe. Both sides have guns - and they wind up in a massive fistfight in the middle of a street?
The same is true of Batman's final face-off with Bane: single combat? Hand to hand? Really? Is that all you've got, Christopher Nolan? It's as phony as a pro-wrestling bout and rematch: The first time, the villain exploits the hero's weakness; the second time, the hero figures out where his opponent is vulnerable and utilizes that knowledge. I mean, honestly - this is the best you can come up with?
Tom Hardy was so impressive as just this sort of fighting machine in last year's Warrior, stripped to the waist, his face a beefy landscape of brutal determination that occasionally cracked to reveal his emotional pain. But here, Hardy is forced to wear a mask (supposedly delivering some sort of pain-killer for Bane's past injuries, rather than strength-enhancing steroids as in the comic) through which only his eyes are visible. Bane struts around holding his lapels like a caricature of a self-important politician. And his voice - well, it probably is Hardy but who knows, because you never see his lips move. His entire Darth Vader-voiced performance might as well have been delivered in the dubbing studio (and probably was).
There are what seem like dozens of other actors here, including Marion Cotillard as a Bruce Wayne business ally, Morgan Freeman back as Batman's version of Q and Matthew Modine as a glory-seeking police boss trying to take down Batman. And many more familiar faces - recognizable character actors in unconscionably small roles: Aidan Gillen, Nestor Carbonell, Daniel Sunjata, Tom Conti, Ben Mendelsohn, Brett Cullen, Reggie Lee. Apparently, the chance to have your name associated with what will undoubtedly be one of the year's biggest box-office hits is irresistible. It probably pays pretty well, too; who cares if you're playing what amounts to a walk-on?
As I said, there are things to admire and enjoy about The Dark Knight Rises, but they ultimately get swept aside by the film's pretentious ambitions. The human scenes - between Bale and Hathaway; Bruce Wayne and Michael Caine's Alfred; or between Gary Oldman's Commissioner Gordon and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young cop who becomes his protégé - demonstrate what this movie could have been, if Nolan had made it as a drama instead of a dirigible. But hot air rules.
There's already Internet and even wire-service chatter about The Dark Knight Rises as the first comic-book movie to be a true Oscar contender. This comes in the wake of the ridiculous outcry when "The Dark Knight" was snubbed for the major awards (with the exception of Ledger) in 2008.
Premature? Hell, I'd say that anyone forecasting serious Oscar love for this lumpish, tedious film has been smoking too much of that potent, prescription California weed. The Dark Knight Rises rarely gets off the ground. It's certainly not Oscar material.
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